Institutional Review Board Quality, Private Equity, And Promoting Ethical Human Subjects Research

Abstract [from journal]

Evaluating the quality and effectiveness of the institutional review boards (IRBs) responsible for overseeing research involving human participants is critically important but perpetually challenging. Seemingly common-sense measures, such as the number of proposals approved with and without major modifications and the number of unexpected adverse events occurring in approved protocols, can be misleading indicators of participant protection, and regulatory compliance may not correspond to achieving ethical goals. These measurement challenges make it difficult to assess the validity of concerns about different IRB models. A group of U.S. senators recently raised questions about the increasing use of for-profit IRBs to review research proposals (as opposed to boards typically housed at academic medical centers and health care institutions) and, more specifically, about the growing trend of private equity ownership and consolidation of for-profit IRBs. Although all IRBs face pressure to speed reviews and none are entirely free of conflicts of interest, the private equity model is particularly susceptible to approaches that could undercut the ethical mission of IRBs to protect and promote the rights and welfare of research participants. Ideally, the quality of board oversight could be measured directly, rather than relying on the heuristic of board type; this article describes several current efforts toward this goal. In the meantime, one improvement may be to pursue a new model of IRB oversight: independent nonprofit boards that stand apart from research institutions, take advantage of business approaches to research review, and minimize conflicts of interest.